Irish tale can be found in Jeremiah Curtin’s ‘Tales of the Fairies and of the
Ghost World’ (1895) and is a version of the widespread tale type 'The Robber Bridegroom'. It was told to Curtin by a man ‘about forty years old’ named
Diarmid Duvane, at a gathering of neighbours in a house near Ventry Strand at ‘a cross-road west of Dingle’. Duvane, who had been born in the area, had emigrated
to America and lost his eyesight in a quarry explosion in Massachusetts. Returning
to Ireland, ‘though blind, he found a wife and with her lives in a little
cottage with a garden and a quarter acre of potatoes.’ He was, says Curtin, ‘a
sceptic by nature’ but one who could tell many a good fairy tale. [NB: a wether is a gelded male sheep.]
There was a farmer in Kerry who owned a great many cattle and sheep and was a very rich man. There were four fairs in the year near his land, and one these was always held on St Martin’s Day. On that day they used to kill a sheep, a heifer or something to offer St Martin. That was the custom all over Ireland then, and still is.
The wife of this rich farmer died and left him with one son and one daughter. He didn’t remarry, and the son and daughter grew till they were of the age to be married, and off they went to the fair on St Martin’s Day. While they were gone their father forgot all about killing the beast for St Martin. Late in the evening his children came home, and they weren’t in the house five minutes before their father remembered what he should have done.
‘A thing has happened that never happened before to myself, my father or my grandfather,’ he said to his son. ‘I forgot to bring an animal into the house to kill for St Martin!’
‘What a misfortune!’ said the son.
‘We can mend it,’ said his father. ‘I want you to go up the hill now and bring me a wether. Go up to the pen on the hill and bring him down to me.’
‘I may not come back alive if I do,’ said the son, ‘and ‘tis you yourself that ought to think of St Martin, and get the sheep.’ The son wouldn’t be told, and he wouldn’t go, so then the daughter said to her brother that she’d go with him, but he swore he wouldn’t go at all, either alone or in company, so the sister said, ‘I’ll go without you.’ And she went to get a rope to tie the sheep.
In the parlour was a nice sword they kept in case there was need of it; it was in a scabbard hanging from a belt. The young woman buckled the belt around her waist and off she went to the hill, where the sheep were penned in a yard with a high stone wall to keep out dogs and wolves, and at one end was a little stone hut where a herder could take shelter. The girl chose the best wether she could find and tied the rope on him, but just as she started for home a great fog came down. She and the sheep got lost and wandered on the hill till they came back to the yard and the hut again, and she decided to wait out the fog and go home in the morning.
Around midnight what did she hear but men talking, and out of the fog and the dark came three fellows driving a great flock of sheep before them. Three brothers they were, robbers that plagued the whole countryside, and there was a hundred pounds reward on the head of each one of them. The girl hid herself in the stone hut and listened. One of the robbers picked out the best of her father’s sheep, the second added them to the flock they’d stolen, while the third man stood guard at the gate. The man choosing the sheep had chosen a good many, when he noticed the hut and said to himself, ‘Maybe he keeps the best of the bunch in here.’ He opened the door and put his head in. The girl was waiting behind it with the naked sword in her two hands. With one blow she took his head off and dragged him into the hut.
The other two called and asked what was keeping him. Getting no answer, the man who was minding the sheep put his head into the hut, and she served him the same way as the first one. The third and youngest called to his brothers, but what was use was it? Sure, they couldn’t answer. He went to the hut and what did he find but his brother stretched in the doorway; he pulled out the body and saw that the head was gone. The fear fell on him, and he took to his heels and left the others behind.
The girl was afraid to come out and stayed where she was till clear day. Then she found two flocks of sheep, for the robber had run off with only his life. She found the wether the rope was on and led him home with her. Her father had been crying and lamenting all night, sure that some evil had come to her. He welcomed her with gladness and asked what had kept her all night. She told him how she had killed the two robbers and left the yard full of sheep. It was well pleased he was to see her safe, and himself and the son went to the sheep yard, fetched the two heads, and taking the girl with them they went to claim the reward, Two hundred pounds she received, for her father said she had earned it and she should keep it.
Well, the news flew all over the country how the young woman had done such a great deed of bravery, and all the people, young and old, were talking of her. About a year later, who should come to the farmer’s house one evening but a man on horseback, and he dressed like any nobleman. They stabled his horse and after supper the farmer, who was wondering what could bring such a fine young man to his house, asked him who he was and what brought him?
‘I’ve come for a wife,’ said the young man.
‘Ah, don’t be talking,’ said the farmer, ‘my daughter is not a fit wife for the likes of you.’
‘If she pleases me, isn’t that enough?’ asked the young man. ‘I have riches enough for myself, and the two hundred pounds she got for the heads of the robbers is enough for her. I want no fortune, I want nothing but herself.’
By the end of the evening, the farmer was well pleased wth the man, and the match was settled. The very next morning they had the marriage and the wedding, but then the husband wouldn’t stop another night: he said he must get home that very day. When the bride saw that, she looked at him closely and thought to herself, ‘He may well be a brother to the two men I killed.’ The young man mounted his horse and she sat behind him, pillion, but she had put the sword belt around her, and hidden the sword under her long cloak.
Away they rode, and not on the highway but through wild and lonely places, and never a word the man spoke to her till the middle of the afternoon, when he stopped and said, ‘Too long I’ve been waiting. I’ve the last of my patience lost and I’ll give you no more time. Come down from the horse.’
‘What are you saying?’ said she.
‘You killed my two brothers in the sheep yard,’ said he. ‘I have you now, and I don’t know how in this world I will make you suffer enough for it. It’s not a sudden death, but a long one I’ll be giving you.’ And what did he tell her then but to undress till he’d cut the flesh from her bit by bit, and she alive.
She came down from the horse. ‘Well,’ said she, ‘I’ve only one thing to ask.’
‘You’ll get nothing from me,’ said the robber.
‘All I wish is for you to turn your face from me while I’m undressing.’
It was the will of God that he turned his face away, and that moment she gave one blow of her sword on his neck and swept the head off him. She hid the head among the rocks where no dog or beast could come at it, for there were two hundred pounds on this man’s head, for he was the worst of the brothers.
Then she tried to turn the horse, but he wouldn’t move a step for her, so she let him have his head and take his own way and he never stopped till he reached the robbers’ house. There was no one there but a very old man, and when he heard the clatter he came out. Seeing the horse, he saluted the farmer’s daughter and asked where was his son?
‘He’s at his father-in-law’s house,’ said she. ‘He got married this morning. He’ll stop there tonight, and be here with his wife tomorrow. Friends will come with them to have a feast here; he sent me to tell you.’
The old man ordered his servant to make everything ready. ‘This is a rich house,’ he told the young woman.
‘Oh, sure your riches could never compare to what your son’s wife has!’
‘I’ll show you a part of the place,’ said the old man, and he showed her a room that was full of gold and silver in heaps. ‘Look at this!’ he said.
‘That is a deal of riches,’ said she, ‘but if there was twice more, ’twould be less than the riches your son’s wife has.’ At supper she asked, was it far to a town or city?
‘Cork is eight miles from this,’ said the old man, and he pointed out the road that led to the highway. Then he showed her to a room and a bed and told her to sleep without fear.
Well, the room was full of men’s clothes – coats, caps and three-cornered hats. She didn’t sleep, she slipped off her dress and put on a man’s clothes. She started at midnight and travelled till daylight. Not two miles from Cork, what did she see coming towards her but a young man on horseback. He saluted her and said, ‘I suppose you have been travelling all night?’
‘A good part of it,’ said she, ‘and I suppose you have, too?’
‘No, but I have to rise early. I am the Mayor of Cork, and have a great deal of work on my hands,’ said he.
Hearing this, she threw herself on her knees, and the Mayor asked what trouble was on her. She told all that had happened. So the Mayor went back to the city and brought out a good company of soldiers with two wagons, and they never stopped till they reached the robbers’ house, while the farmer’s daughter led the Mayor and some men to the place where she had hidden the head. They brought the head with them and gathered up all the riches at the robbers’ house, bound the old father and took him to Cork to be tried and judged and hanged. And the Mayor was unmarried, and what did he do but marry the farmer’s daughter, and she was his wife for as long as she lived.
* For more on the old Irish custom of killing a beast for St Martin, visit https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2019/1108/1089533-martinmas-blood-sacrifice-rites-ireland-november-11th/
Shepherdess by her hut, by Wilhelm Frey, 1872
Riding pillion, The Young Lady's Equestrian Manual, Project Gutenberg